Even Chimpanzees Use Conflict Resolution

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

A recent study found that even chimpanzees use conflict resolution in the form of policing (i.e., arbitration/mediation) to resolve their disputes and/or to prevent them in the first place. Further, like humans, they look to those with status or high rank, to resolve the erupting conflict.

Perusing Google news, I stumbled upon an article in timeslive.co.za published on March 19, 2012 about a study published on March 7, 2012 in PLoS ONE, (Chimpanzee Study ) on the behavior of chimpanzee at the zoo in Gossau, Switzerland. The researchers found that chimpanzees “…were able to mediate in a conflict, without themselves deriving any immediate advantage from their efforts.” (Id.)

The anthropologists from the University of Zurich- led by Claudia Rudolf von Rohr and Carel P. van Schaik- observed a group of 11 chimpanzees in non-conflict situations. The group consisted of 3 male adults and 1 young male and then 6 female adults and 2 young females. Three of the adult females had just joined the group. Then, soon after the study began, 3 more females were added to the group. When they joined, the group was already experiencing issues of ranking among the males. As is true with humans, when the new adult females joined the group together with the ongoing issue of who outranked whom, dissension and conflict took center stage.

The researchers observed the group for about 22 hours in February 2007 and then for about 564 hours between May 2007 and November 2008. They then compared this data with data they had collected on chimpanzees living in zoos located in the United Kingdom and in the Netherlands. They found:

“The conflicts centered on competition among the females for food and among the males for access to the females. The researchers counted 438 conflict situations. Impartial mediators intervened in 69 cases.” In all cases, one of the two senior males was the mediator.” (Id.)

The researchers found that often times, all the “mediator” had to do was to approach the squabbling parties “…although in some cases making a clear threat or placing himself between them was required.” (Id.) The “mediator” settled 60 of the 69 disputes for an 86.9% success rate.

As you might imagine, the “mediator” did face some risks by interposing himself between the disputants (who, by this point, may be taking swings at each other). He tended to become the focal point of their aggression, drawing attacks on his own body by interposing it between the disputants! The researchers opine that perhaps this is why it was a chimpanzee of high status that always intervened.

There is certainly a lesson or moral somewhere in this study but I am not quite sure what it is… other than that “conflict resolution” is a lot more universal than we think it is!

….. Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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